Newbery Medal winner

Fairy tales do come true at Park School

January 15, 2008|By Mary Carole McCauley and Jill Rosen | Mary Carole McCauley and Jill Rosen,Sun reporters

When Park School librarian Laura Amy Schlitz arrived at work yesterday, she was presented with a tiara borrowed from the theater's props department - a fitting tribute for the newly anointed queen of children's literature.

Schlitz, 52, of Baltimore, learned that she had won the 2008 Newbery Medal, given annually for the most distinguished contribution to American literature for the under-18 set.

During an all-school assembly called yesterday afternoon in Schlitz's honor, the entire student body of nearly 900 students stood and cheered for at least 30 seconds. The applause went on and on.

"When I was a child, I wanted to be important," said Schlitz, who has worked at the Park School since 1991 as a librarian and as the chief storyteller. "I never thought I'd win this award. I still can't believe I'd won it. But all the love and loyalty in this room - this is better."

In past weeks, rumors had been rife on several Web sites that Schlitz's Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! Voices from a Medieval Village would be a contender for either the top prize, or one of the three 2008 Honor Books. Featuring characters such as a youthful beggar, a glassblower's apprentice and a shepherdess, the collection of 22 monologues and dialogues grew out of a Park School lesson plan.

"I was keeping my fingers crossed and hoping against hope that the monologues would be selected as an Honor Book," Schlitz said.

"I knew if they were going to call me, they'd call me very early in the morning. I woke up at 5 a.m. with a stomachache that wouldn't let me go back to sleep.

"When it got to be 6:30 a.m., I figured that it was too late, that I hadn't won. And then the phone rang.

"And I thought, `Please, not a wrong number.'"

It wasn't. After yesterday's announcement by the Newbery Committee, Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! had rocketed to No. 17 on's list of top sellers.

In addition, Schlitz fielded interview requests yesterday from newspapers that included the Detroit Free Press and The Washington Post, and was scheduled to appear this morning on NBC's The Today Show.

Other honors, though more local in scope, were no less cherished. During Schlitz's noon-hour session with the second grade, the pupils in Mr. Rollins' class presented her with a poster they'd decorated and autographed in honor of the Newbery award.

"Have a good life!" wrote a boy named Donald.

Several students clearly wanted to wish Schlitz "congratulations," though a few had trouble spelling such a long word. An occasional stray consonant, such as a "P," leapt the fence, wandered in where it didn't belong and had to be crossed out with a firm hand.

"For someone who doesn't have children, she's incredibly insightful about what's going on in a child's head," said her friend Judith Schwait, who works in publications at Park School and is Daniel's mother.

Betsy Leighton, the lower school principal, said the same qualities that Schlitz brings to her writing make her a passionate and insightful advocate for children.

"When a child is having trouble, sometimes we seek a perspective from an outside staff member," Leighton said. "Laura always has something useful and valuable to say. More often than not, she's right on the mark."

Schwait's 18-year-old son Daniel, a 12th-grader, has known Schlitz since he was 3 years old, and the two have become close friends.

"She's like no one else I've ever known," said Daniel Schwait, who discovered before he was in second grade that he and Schlitz share a passion for opera.

"We would swing on the swings and sing arias from The Marriage of Figaro and The Magic Flute," he says. "Laura would sing in Italian, and I would sing sounds that sounded like Italian to me."

Schlitz's novel is characterized by that quirky sensibility. Not only does it have an unconventional structure, it has footnotes - unheard of for a children's book, though they are some of the most delightful aspects of Good Masters! Sweet Ladies! The selection surprised some who expected the Newbery Committee to gravitate, as usual, toward more traditionally styled fiction.

But Newbery Committee chairwoman Nina Lindsay called granting the medal to the monologues easily a "rock-solid decision."

"What makes it fabulous is the language she uses to bring these characters alive," Lindsay said, praising Schlitz's use of varied poetic forms and literary styles, leavened with humor.

She added that the awards committee was impressed that Schlitz had transformed the book form from a sedentary pursuit by encouraging young people to read aloud, perform and play-act with others.

"It comes to life as you start reading it," Lindsay said.

"The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. But the end, it's like a pageant of characters."

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